By Chris Myson
In a team with superstar signings such as Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Carlos Tevez and Yaya Toure, it is easy to overlook a right-back signed for just £6.5 million.
Pablo Zabaleta may not crave the attention some of his team-mates receive for their exploits at Manchester City but he certainly deserves to receive immense credit for his contributions at the Etihad Stadium.
Against Stoke City, it was the defender who combined well with Silva and James Milner before stabbing home the opening goal, setting City on the way to a 3-0 victory that was sealed by Edin Dzeko and Aguero strikes.
Most importantly though, and unlike many of the flying full-backs and wing-backs in the game today, he is fully aware of his defensive responsibilities and will rarely be seen making costly mistakes or avoiding his most important duties at the back.
His performances are consistently strong and Zabaleta is one of the most reliable players at Roberto Mancini’s disposal – surely one of the first names on the Italian’s team sheet when the biggest matches come around.
Unlike his star-studded team-mates, he has had to fight to be part of this trophy-challenging City side, but has established himself well ahead of Micah Richards in the pecking order over recent seasons and remains a far safer bet than new signing Maicon.
With high quality full-backs in modern football very much few and far between, Zabaleta’s combination of solid and reliable defensive skills and the ability to contribute further forward – he has also played some matches in midfield – makes him one of the most complete players around in his position.
It is Argentine strikers Aguero and Tevez who often claim the plaudits and attention at City, but it is important not to discount the unsung contributions of their compatriot Zabaleta to the team’s success.
Mark Hughes’ spell as manager may be a distant memory for fans of the current Premier League champions under Mancini, but the supporters should be thankful that the Welshman spent wisely on the defender in 2008.
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At 27, Zabaleta has now reached his peak years having accumulated notable top-level experience while still having significant time left in his career at the highest level.
Despite the routine victory over Stoke – a win that never looked in doubt despite the visitors’ impressive defensive record going into the game – City still trail rivals Manchester United by seven points at the top of the Premier League table.
It will require the side’s leaders, like Vincent Kompany and Zabaleta, who is occasionally handed the captain's armband as a sign of his increasing stature in the squad, to keep standards high throughout January, ensuring City are still in touch with United when an important time of the season comes around.
With the club out of European competition, they will look to take advantage by making up some ground when United are distracted by commitments in the Champions League knockout stages.
But that factor will only be relevant if City are able to avoid losing any further points and ideally they will have cut the gap to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team before then.
Retaining the title from here is still going to be a massive effort and they are going to need not just their stars, but also the unsung heroes like Zabaleta to drive them through to another late-season surge.
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